Salient. An Organ of Student Opinion at Victoria College, Wellington, N.Z. Vol. 13, No. 4. March 23rd, 1950
Nothing could be further removed from the ordinary man's idea of the typical Latin reaction than Rossellini's portrayal of the effects of war on a number of human beings. Flat, unemotional—mere reporting, almost—the film packs a tremendous punch because it does forget to dramatise the way people behave, if this is realism in film, then I hope that "Paisa" does not remain—as an overseas reviewer feared—a respected monolith in film history without much affect on its successors. Few films deserve the label "great," but this to certainly one of them.
Perhaps the last of the six almost unrelated episodes impresses most of all. This to partly because, by virtue of the scenery in which it was shot, it has an empty and barren beauty which none of the other scenes get. It impresses more, though, because the increasing tension of the chase as the Germans close in on the mixed bag of partisans and soldiers among the marshes ends—not with a "death and glory" resistance—but in the marshalling of a mob of prisoners out of the rushes to meet the death, but not the glory. Death in a form which is shocking only because it is so flatly and unemotionally shown. "Paisa," Is like "Open City" and "Vivere In Pace" in the way death is treated; in each the film closes with a sudden death, but in each the feeling is left that this death to solving nothing—the problems left behind by this sort of violent erasing of life are less resolved than ever. Probably war has never possessed less pomp and circumstance than in the last few feet of "Paisa."
Of the other episodes, it to difficult to say what impresses most. Each (except the monastery one) builds to a climax only to end in nothing or a cynical reversal of the trend. Each leaves the same sense of unsolved problems which must yet be worked out Possibly the Naples scene to more easily remembered because of this, but the Florence scene or any of the others might almost as well be chosen. No happy ending to these stories—indeed no end at all, but a beginning into a future from which hope seems to have gone. One feels somewhat inadequate to assess nuances of feeling so fine as Rossellini manages to get in the broadest and most casual sweep of his camera.
Others have commented on the incoherence of the film. I personally didn't get this. Bound only (admittedly) by the geographical order of the stories paralleling the movement of the Allied armies up Italy, the episodes are linked because they show war by moving round it—snapping it, as it were, from differing angles to get the dimension and reality of it. But nothing so impersonal, as "war" is the real centre of "Paisa." It is people, people—always their reactions, the way events impact upon them. In stressing the humanity of his characters, Rossellini manages to underline the inhumanity of war without direct comment.
Of the technique in "Paisa," there to little to say. There are no camera tricks, no striking angles, no clever, cutting or climactic editing. There to life—here to a camera. Let's record the one with the other." This seems to be Rossellinl's way of working—and it does work. The rare use of close-ups and the frequent use of long shots give a total effect much as though we were the unobserved observer of all this. Most markedly, he doesn't even bother to explain the things which have preceded the event; we are left to infer them as we may.
"Open City" may have been more coherent, more effective in the directly emotional sense. "Vivere in Pace" may have been more human, more rounded. But "Paisa" getting only broken and blurred images of the swirl of war, incoherent episodic, is quite alone in the depth and starkness in which it shows the futility of war. In each episode, we feel that its characters, one by one, are left in the rubble of their civilisation to face larger problems than wartime ones. And "Paisa" puts the problem squarely in the lap of the audience before it can leave the theatre.